Let’s talk about an alternative to dialogue tags: the action beat.
An action beat is a sentence that follows a line of dialogue, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. The speaking character does something before or after their line of dialogue.
If you need a quick refresher on dialogue tags before diving into action beats, read this post about why said is not dead.
Action beats are useful.
Action beats offer variety.
If you hate the monotony of said, even though you understand its purpose, action beats also show the reader who is speaking.
Caution: Don’t overuse action beats or dialogue tags. One dialogue tag is needed for every five or six lines of dialogue (when two characters are speaking). More tags are necessary if more than two characters are speaking. You can get away with more action beats than dialogue tags, but you don’t need one for every line of dialogue.
Action beats allow readers to infer.
Action beats help readers make inferences about what’s going on inside a character’s mind without you having to tell them. More show, less tell. 😊
Caution: If the character’s dialogue is strong enough, you may not need an action beat. Don’t water down your dialogue for the sake of including an action beat.
Action beats provide helpful narrative.
Action beats allow you to share significant stage directions and character quirks.
Caution: If you’re overusing action beats, you’re probably bogging your reader down with actions that don’t propel the scene forward. Two biggies to avoid: heads nodding and shaking. If the character answers yes, then readers don’t need to see the affirmative head nod, too.
Action beats can reveal a paradox.
If the character says one thing but does another, readers get to solve the mystery of what’s actually going on beneath the words spoken.
Caution: This is a powerful tool, so don’t overuse it. It will lose its zing for readers if every other action beat reveals paradoxical subtext.
One final note of caution about action beats:
A dialogue tag will fade into the background for the reader. An action does the exact opposite. It sends a signal to the reader that something is happening they need to pay attention to. And this is going to impact your pacing.
Whether you choose to use dialogue tags or action beats, be sure you’re making an informed choice about what purpose they serve in your scene.